Christian Campbell: dreaming again

Bahamian poet Christian Campbell demands his place

Christian Campbell. Photograph courtesy Christian Campbell

Tall, broad in the chest, and quirkily stylish, Christian Campbell might look more like a fashionista than one of the Caribbean’s fastest rising poets. But the twenty-seven-year-old Bahamian is a hard-working advocate of regional poetry as well as a (hopefully) soon-to-be published poet himself.

In Trinidad last September for Carifesta, Campbell confessed he was still working on his doctoral dissertation, a pan-Caribbean poetry survey. As often happens with writers who are activists, he had been distracted by a number of projects, including the Carifesta stop itself. Still, it must have been a useful trip for Campbell, who boasts of his Trinidadian heritage on his mother’s side.

“I feel I have these twin roots, in folk culture and creativity in the arts,” said Campbell in an interview at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last May. A critic as well as a poet, the Duke University PhD candidate was a Rhodes scholar in 2002, and holds an MPhil in modern British literature from Oxford. Clearly, he’s more than a pretty face or a fashion maven, whatever might be suggested by the ironic trucker’s cap he wears over a healthy-looking curly Afro.

The confluence between his two careers — criticism and poetry — is one he finds productive. “In the Caribbean, our greatest theorists are writers. It’s not strange for me to do away with the divide between the creative and the critical in the way that I write and the way that I think about my identity.”

Though young, he’s achieved an impressive stature in academia — he has taught at the University of the West Indies, Duke, and Oxford. To him, his age is a boon. “There’s all of this I still have to explore, and I also see it as a blessing. Me and the writers of my generation are in a critical moment in the history, in that we are post-post-Independence. With us now, it’s like we’re in a space where we have an incredible tradition, and our job is to figure out how to creatively inherit, to transform this tradition and to free ourselves to confront and be influenced by the different influences.” He adds, “We are the products of the dream of revolution fading. We have to dream again and dream in a different way what it is we want to make of this matrix of the Caribbean.”

Campbell’s poetry, which walks that talk, won him a Cave Canem fellowship, an American initiative to foster growth of young black voices. His poems are unapologetically modernist, with few frills. As a lyrics man, he weaves contemporary and classic imagery into terse lines that get right to the point. His first collection, “Running the Dusk”, currently in progress, is named after his habit of running along Nassau’s Goodman’s Bay of an evening. Running in that space is important for him, in “implicitly reclaiming the beach that has been hijacked by tourism and neo-colonial fantasy.”

A big part of his mission is to bring attention to the offerings of his homeland. “I’m so tired of us as Bahamian poets being excluded . . . We need to break down this grand narrative of the Caribbean as being Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad. We have to do better. We have to demand our presence, not for the sake of a Caricom anthology but because of the excellence of our work.”

 

Legba

A well-loved lit classic
packed in each bag, and a Harvard
sweatshirt, to match the Pakistani
passport: Iqbal goes first, catching
a flight to France. Then me,
in a tie and soft pants, khaki hat
to keep my mane tame. We chat
clipped and colonial, like our tutors,
grinning out Oxford with a nod.
At immigration I put on airs
and styles, let the maleness growl
without teeth. Hold my chest
with untouchable height. All like
a politician, a Sidney Poitier,
an old Bahamian man. I look
only ahead and walk straight-back,
like my grandfather. Speak like he spoke
to foreigners. In his best moods,
he would put on the mouths
of all the Englishmen he’d met,
playing the Queen and how
she gave him his MBE — Pa.
There, reciting and reciting Blake,
until he fell down blank and silent
as any road in Nassau
the morning after junkanoo.

— Christian Campbell